I slap my light blue Garmin over my right wrist. Its silicon band hangs heavy on my arm. I awkwardly pull one end of the band through the buckle and maneuver the clasp through a tiny hole. My marathon training schedule calls for a 4-mile tempo run. My legs still feel heavy from a 17-mile trail run three days ago, but alas, it’s what’s been prescribed. I look at my watch to see I’m at an 8-minute pace for my warm-up. I head west on Boulder Creek Path, which winds itself up a canyon into the mountains. My legs feel smooth, like I’m gliding over the surface of a bright blue Colorado sky.
The Boulder Creek Path, in Boulder, Colo., sneakily gains over 500 feet of elevation in a few miles; it’s hard to see the incline as you wind around the thunderous, canyon walls. But even if your eyes don’t see it, your legs soon feel it. I struggle to keep a 7:20 tempo pace as I wind up the canyon. My quads feel like 2x4s that cling to my legs and my breath is only a hollow gasp. Still, I keep going, reminding myself that mile 22 of a trail marathon will probably feel 10 times worse than this.
I continue up the canyon at what feels like a crawling pace. The numbers on my watch slowly tick up to 7:40, 7:50 as my speed slows. My mental toughness starts to lose its grip when I look down at my watch, which finally beeps to indicate my mile split time—8:02.
8:02?! That is my warm-up pace, I think. And here I am, so called a “runner” doing that as a tempo pace. I watch my breath fall out of my chest and hit the floor. A flood of self-deprecation follows: You are slow! You’ll never finish this marathon! What are you even doing here?
I stop. I pull over to the side of the path, wipe tears of frustration and self pity from my eyes, and try to calm my heaving chest. I stop my watch and delete the activity. No step count. No sync to Strava. I turn back down the path and stumble home, refusing to notice the wildflowers, the changing leaves or how my body now feels.
GPS watches are a relatively new phenomena for runners. The first one, the Garmin Forerunner 101, came out in 2003 (and looked like this). Since then, hundreds of activity-tracking watches and apps have exploded on the market, with an ever-expanding suite of features—from measuring pace and distance to more complex metrics, like HR max, lactate threshold, and excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. And whereas initially they were expensive (OK, some models still have price tags above $500), nowadays you can find a few GPS running watches for $99.
I’ve been a runner for 15 years, yet have only used a Garmin for about three. At first it was helpful; the data showed me I could run faster than I realized, and ultimately gave me confidence to start pushing paces and signing up for marathons, where I BQ’ed on my second attempt.
Soon, though, I became obsessed with the data. The watch—instead of my body—was telling me how to feel. Every number started defining my self worth; as a general rule, anything below an 8-minute pace was good, and anything above 8-minute pace was not good. I became ashamed of numbers that looked too high and weekly mileage that looked too low.
It sounds ridiculous as I type this, but I’m sure other runners can relate. Right? So that’s what I journeyed out to discover, what people really think about while they run with their watch.
Driven by Data
When Alexis Fairbanks, 26, was struggling with an eating disorder in college, her whole life was based on numbers: number on the scale, time in a race, split on the watch. She explained, “When I got a Garmin, I got really hung up on the data, especially If I wasn’t running a certain pace. I would obsessively look at my watch every 2 minutes.”
When I asked Fairbanks to share her story with me, it eerily rang true to my own experience: We were trying to outrun our own watches.
When training for her first Boston Marathon in 2016, Fairbanks’ goal was to run a 3:22, which is around a 7:30 pace. So she tried to maintain a 7:15 pace or faster—for every single training run.
“I just had to prove to myself I could beat this on my wrist,” she says.
During that training cycle, Fairbanks ran herself into a serious injury—a torn hamstring—and spent the next few months in the pool and at physical therapy. She was training too fast and her body couldn’t handle it without proper recovery.
READ MORE: The Importance of Slow Recovery Runs
A year later, she was beginning another training cycle to prepare for The Chicago Marathon. But this time she did things differently. She got a coach, Megan Roche, and started listening to Roche more than her watch. Fairbanks was persuaded to turn her GPS off for easy runs and start running by feel; during her long runs, she would run allocated miles at marathon effort versus marathon pace, one of the best pieces of advice she received from her coach.
“It reminded me I needed to meet my body where it was on that day,” she says.
She ended up with a PR at Chicago (3:14). And, she did it without relying on her watch, which didn’t work consistently due to the tall buildings getting in the way of signal. “If I had a GPS, I think I would have overthought it—held back in some places, pushed in other places. My watch not working, well, worked to my benefit.”
In fact, a recent study from Ulster University in Northern Ireland found that focusing on metrics, like pace, can actually cause runners to go slower than when they focus on running itself.
Considering there are over 8 million users on Strava alone (which also accounts for cyclists and hikers) I knew all data can’t be all bad. I surveyed a handful of runners who, when I asked if running data had helped them improve as a runner, said “yes, absolutely.”
Eric Einstein, who’s been a runner for three years, explained that having more knowledge about what he’s doing and what paces and distances feel good helped him improve. For him, running data allowed him to set realistic goals.
For Andrew Alexander, he can only hypothesize: “I don’t have a watch or app, but my guess is that if I did, it’d help me be more diligent––some amount of data would probably help me train better and more consistently.”
READ MORE: 5 Reasons You Should Unplug While Running
So maybe we’re simply using running data the wrong way.
Nikhil Dandavati is a 30-year-old who took up running in 2015. I spoke to him on the phone while he was running (okay, it was a cool down, but still) and he shared his experience with me.
One evening two years ago, Dandavati had “half a beer too many” and was convinced by his brother to run a trail 10K in Vail, Colo. After finishing the race, he quickly caught the running bug. His brother easily coerced him to sign up for a 25K, and Dandavati surprised himself by finishing in third place.
After his podium finish, he signed up for the Leadville Marathon, in Leadville, Colo., a relentless course with 7,000 feet in elevation gain on a trail that never dips below 10,200 feet. Terrified of not finishing, Dandavati hired a coach and downloaded Strava.
In those early months of running, he didn’t wear a watch. Instead, he would look at the clock in the lobby of his apartment building before heading out for a run, check the time when he returned, use Google maps to figure out how far he ran, and do the math to calculate a rough pace.
Yet, when Dandavati downloaded Strava, he didn’t do it for the followers or social proof. He says he had only three or four followers, and doesn’t follow anyone he doesn’t know.
“I run because it’s super fun for me, not because I’m trying to beat anyone’s time or share it on social media. The satisfaction comes from how I progress, not by comparing myself to other people.”
Dandavati finished the Leadville marathon with a little too much left in the tank. He closed his final mile in 6:30, so knew his body was capable of more. He signed up for a 50K soon after, where his running data became helpful, especially in the final miles of the actual race.
“I didn’t know what I was supposed to feel towards the end of that race since I never ran that distance before. When I came into the mile 27 aid station, I looked at Strava to see where my pace had been, while tapping into how I was feeling. I’m still unfamiliar with how my body will react, and paying attention to data points while correlating it with reality helped me get to the finish line.”
So is running data actually useful? The answers to that question, like most things in life, is probably “it depends.”
The value of running data depends on the context of the situation: how we use it and why we use it. Running data gives us a baseline look at the kind of runner we are. If we know what a comfortable, tempo, and all-out pace generally looks like, we can set realistic goals. If we can better understand time, pace, and maybe even heart rate, we can better prescribe weekly mileage and potentially avoid injury. We can in fact, like Dandavati, use data to know we can push through the final miles of an ultramarathon.
Yet it’s easy to take data too far, up to the point where it sucks the joy out of running altogether.
What I’ve learned is this: Data doesn’t need to be part of every single run unless it has a certain healthy and helpful purpose. (Yes, this might mean less Kudos on Strava, but worse things have happened.) What my watch tells me can never be a substitute for the true teller: my own body.
So now when I head out for a run, I ask myself if I need my watch, and more often than not the answer is no. Because for me, data can make me feel a prisoner to numbers. And the core of why I run is to feel free.
READ MORE: Why You Might Benefit from a Running Coach